What is work happiness?

Expert faculty from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D. define happiness at work as: feeling an overall sense of enjoyment at work; being able to gracefully handle setbacks; connecting amicably with colleagues, coworkers, clients, and customers; and knowing that your work matters to yourself, your organization, and beyond.

Work happiness is not a fluffy, idealistic state that we can dream about but convince ourselves is just not possible. Being happy at work has a deeper, more dynamic definition that can be more within our control than we may think and more within our reach than we may believe.

What being happy at work actually looks like will differ for all of us, depending on our own professional interests and our personal values, on our circumstances and our goals. The broader point remains – that work happiness has many common elements to it for all of us, and with a little bit of time and attention we can begin to understand more about what it means to us as individuals to be happy at work.


Why is work happiness important?

Our relationship with work has changed significantly since the original concept of organisational work and structures. Now, much of our identity can be wrapped up in our work. Our relationship with work has become more personal, more intertwined, more strained and even more significant in our lives overall.

How we are at work and how we feel about work can really affect how we are in our personal lives, including how we feel about our futures, how useful we feel, how valued, how productive, how effective, how liked, how much we feel like we belong. These are huge expectations to place on our work, our employer, our career. 

And when we are happier at work, there are scientifically proven benefits for the business. 

  • Happier employees experience 31% higher productivity and organisations with an engaged workforce can boost productivity by a fifth. 
  • Happier employees are less likely to burn out or be absent from work, taking ten times fewer sick days. 
  • Happier employees display three times more creativity. 
  • When people are in a state of ‘happiness’, they are able to find 12+ solutions to a given problem, compared to 2 when in a state of anger or fear. 
  • Happier employees stay in their role for twice as long.

These are significant statistics for businesses, though many businesses struggle with the shift to consider employee happiness as a significant driver of productivity, commercial success, and competitive advantage versus happiness as a product of those same elements.


How can you start to find work happiness?

There are some common elements that can help us get closer to being happier at work. It takes a shift of looking externally (pay, promotions, job titles etc) to looking internally and taking more responsibility for our own experience of work, our own behaviours and our own actions. It’s less about what we do and more about how we are. And whether you’re feeling good and looking to be even happier, or if you’re feeling really crap about work without a place to start, the below five ways will give you structure and focus to take meaningful action.

1. Purpose

Find meaning in what you’re doing. Whether you’re working with your passion, your strengths, your interests or something that you’re proud of, find a way to recognise the value that you bring and the value that your work delivers as part of a bigger picture. This does not have to be overly complicated, and you don’t need to be saving the world. It could be simple. As long as it’s significant to you.

It might be you’ve forgotten – remind yourself why you made the decisions that led to where you are now. Speak to the leaders in your organisation to remind yourself of why the organisation exists and why the work matters. It might be that what you’re doing now isn’t meaningful for you anymore, which could be your signal to make some changes.

When we can connect what we are doing now to a bigger picture, to a deeper purpose, to a broader goal, that’s when it becomes meaningful – find the connection. 

2. Growth

Think about what will help you develop either professionally or personally. Think about ‘enlargement’ as Oliver Burkeman puts it. Or ‘mastery’ as Daniel Pink talks about in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Think about what will make you grow. What can you learn, what skills gap can you close, what strength can you master, and critically, what actions can you take to facilitate this growth. From asking for specific training opportunities at work, asking HR to work with a coach, throwing yourself into an interest or hobby outside of work, or really getting laser focused on a particular strength of yours to explore all the ways you can expand and extend how and where you use it, get cracking!

3. Personal Agency

This is so important but sometimes, through the social infrastructure that we are brought up in and the tick boxes that get put in front of us, the expectations from our boss or the requirements of our commitments, we can get caught up in focusing on how to be compliant. How to deliver against expectations we did not necessarily set for ourselves, how to conform to what others are doing because we’re not quite sure if we can do it differently, and how to sit and wait for the things we need and want to happen. This is not necessarily helpful when it comes to being happy.

To compound this sense of giving away responsibility for our own needs, we can also put major expectations on other people to meet our needs, whether that’s our company, a manager, a partner, a mentor, a colleague. 

We can take responsibility back, find our sense of personal agency and really take back control of our own work and career, present and future. This sense of autonomy can make the difference between passively waiting through life and actively engaging with what is around us in a more meaningful way to improve our sense of happiness and even wellbeing at work. 

Lean in and get into the driving seat. 

4. Resilience 

The strength to overcome adversity at work is priceless. And it can show up in the smallest of ways – dealing with a moody colleague with grace, not letting a throwaway comment affect your confidence, taking a coffee break before responding to a difficult email. It can show up in bigger ways too – coping with work stress and pressure to avoid burnout, moving on from redundancy, dealing with workplace conflict or a toxic environment.

Having the awareness and tools to respond to situations and experiences in a way that limits the impact on you can take practice, the good news is resilience is a state and not a trait, it can be learned and developed and strengthened. Build this muscle and find yourself having more positivity at work. Read more on my 9 tips for resilience here.

5. Humanity

Be a decent human being. 

Treat people like inherently good people (in most cases, whether they are or not). Take into account feelings – your own and the feelings of others. Practice empathy. Show compassion. Listen actively. Ask questions. Be straight. Show respect. 


Photo by Jacqueline Munguía on Unsplash